PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Sullivan keeps insisting his team isn’t looking ahead. That the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t let their eyes creep ahead to next week when their injury riddled regular season ends and the real defense of their Stanley Cup begins.
Sullivan’s team backed up its coach, even with another familiar face out of the lineup indefinitely.
Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary scored power-play goals, Scott Wilson picked up his eight of the season and Penguins held off the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 on Sunday to move into second place in the Metropolitan Division with four games remaining.
Matt Murray finished with 33 saves for the Penguins, including a dozen over the final 20 minutes as Pittsburgh beat the Hurricanes for a seventh straight time despite playing without veteran forward Chris Kunitz, who is out with a lower-body injury Sullivan described as “longer term.”
No matter. The Penguins rolled on anyway thanks to Guentzel and Sheary on the second-power play unit and an energetic fourth line fueled in part by Wilson, a grinder who may have an expanded role in the playoffs with Kunitz out of the lineup.
“For me when guys step up at different times and different people make contributions each and every night, that’s a sign of a competitive team,” Sullivan said.
Pittsburgh’s victory coupled with Columbus’ loss to Washington vaulted the Penguins into second place in the Metropolitan. The Blue Jackets will visit PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday in a showdown that could go a long way to determining who will have home ice should the two teams meet in the opening round.
“I think it’s going to set the tone if we play them in the playoffs,” Guentzel said.
It’s a conversation the Hurricanes hoped to have this spring following a 13-game point streak that propelled a late charge at the final wild-card spot. The surge stalled following a second loss in less than 24 hours. Jeff Skinner collected his 33rd goal of the season for Carolina and Justin Faulk’s fluky power-play goal halfway through the third period gave the Hurricanes momentum but couldn’t produce the tying goal.
“We’re still fighting and still trying to get every point possible,” Faulk said. “It was a pretty good effort by the guys. We didn’t really sit back too much and we were still trying to play our game, which is huge. You don’t want to let last night’s loss linger too long and I don’t think we did that.”
Eddie Lack made 23 stops for the Hurricanes in his first start since being taken to the hospital with a strained neck last week but Carolina is virtually assured of missing the playoffs for an eighth straight year.
That hasn’t been an issue in Pittsburgh for over a decade. The Penguins have managed to hang around the top of the NHL’s toughest division anyway thanks in large part to its youthful depth, which was on full display again against the Hurricanes.
Guentzel, a 22-year-old, rookie, took a cross-ice feed from Chad Ruhwedel and slipped it by Lack 11:28 into the first to give the Penguins the lead. Skinner tied it less than two minutes later by pushing Elias Lindholm’s shot across the goal line.
No matter. Wilson put the Penguins up to stay when he kept jabbing at a loose puck in the crease until it slipped by Lack 7:50 into the second. The 24-year-old Sheary made it 3-1 5:07 into the third with an easy power-play goal after Patric Hornqvist found him all alone in the right circle.
Faulk drew Carolina within one when his shot from the point smacked off the glass behind the Pittsburgh net, hit Murray in the back then bounced into the goal, which Murray called “the worst bounce I’ve ever had in my life.”
It hardly rattled Murray. Two days after allowing the tying goal in the dwindling seconds of regulation against the New York Rangers before emerging with a victory, he settled down to put the Hurricanes away.
“They were playing a playoff type of game,” Murray said. “They played really well. I’m just glad we got the two points at the end of it.”
NOTES: The Penguins went 2 for 2 on the power play. The Hurricanes were 1 for 2. … Pittsburgh outscored Carolina 16-6 in four meetings this season. … Former Carolina D Ron Hainsey played 22:56 in his first game against the Hurricanes since being traded to the Penguins in February. … Murray’s 30 victories are the most by a rookie goaltender in team history.
Carolina: Visit Minnesota on Tuesday.
Pittsburgh: Hosts Columbus on Tuesday in final regular season home game.